A telephone survey asking what some voters consider loaded questions about Spokane’s mayoral candidates is being denounced by the incumbent and disavowed by the challenger.
Pollsters hired by the Sabey Corp. asked voters if they would support a candidate who can’t manage his personal finances. Although the question didn’t name a candidate, it’s an obvious reference to Mayor Jack Geraghty’s court dispute with his estranged wife over payments from their legal separation.
Pollsters also asked whether voters would support a candidate who was raised in Spokane, had a distinguished military career, then returned to serve his community.
Again, no names were mentioned, but the question echoes a theme from the campaign of challenger John Talbott, a retired Air Force colonel.
The survey, which some voters described as riddled with biased questions, was paid for by the company that owns NorthTown Mall.
Information from the poll will be used by a group campaigning against Geraghty, which is funded in part by the company’s owner David Sabey.
“I certainly was disturbed by some of the questions,” Geraghty said. “I think it just feeds the rumor mill.”
He described the disagreement with his estranged wife - which resulted in a contempt of court finding from the Spokane County Superior Court - as “a technical dispute” that is now settled.
Tactics such as a campaign call disguised as a poll “turn my stomach,” challenger John Talbott said.
“If there was anyone on my campaign doing anything like that, they would not be on the campaign anymore,” Talbott said. “I don’t have the money to waste on that. I don’t even have the money to buy the signs that people want.”
Talbott added he had received complaints about a different set of phone calls. Supporters have told them that when they say they are voting for him, the “pollster” slams the phone down.
October phone calls to identify a candidate’s supporters so the campaign can “get out the vote” on election day are a fairly common tactic. But in recent years, some candidates and independent campaign groups have used a device called a push poll, which attempts to influence voters by revealing favorable or unfavorable information about a candidate.
The poll is not a legitimate survey, Spokane pollster Bill Robinson said.
“It’s not research. It’s an attempt to influence opinion rather than sample it,” said the owner of Robinson Research. “It poisons the well.”
Jim Kneeland of Pacific Public Affairs, a spokesman for Sabey, said the poll was a legitimate way to gather information and “a fairly common practice” in statewide races. It may not be common in Spokane city races, he said.
“Is there anything in this Spokane municipal race that is common?” he asked.
Pollsters called about 300 people, which Kneeland argued is not enough to shape public opinion.
The poll asked a question about Geraghty’s financial problems, Kneeland said. But the campaign organization has no plans at this time to use the results in its ad campaign.
“There have been no personal attacks,” he said, although he hinted the campaign group, Citizens Action Coalition, could unleash such an attack in response to a personal attack by Geraghty.
Voters angry about the poll said they were asked for their opinion of Sabey and NorthTown, as well as Betsy Cowles, president of Citizens Realty Co. and Lincoln Investment Co., which are working on a major redevelopment of River Park Square.
Those companies are owned by Cowles Publishing Co., which also owns The Spokesman-Review.
Don Jamison of Spokane said he became suspicious when a caller asked if he thought the City Council ought to be working on roads and working on redevelopment.
“I was very upset by the tone of the questions. Jamison said. “They made a lot of assumptions, as if the council wasn’t working on these things.”
“You ask a lot of questions,” Kneeland said. “It’s always nice to know what people think.”
“If the complaint is we asked unscientific questions, we didn’t get scientific answers.”
Although push polls can help campaigns find messages that strike a chord with voters, they can also backfire, political consultants said. Voters who are angry or uncomfortable with the questions often assume they are conducted by candidates, and vote against them - even if that campaign has nothing to do with the calls.
“It makes me more likely to vote for Geraghty, based on the duplicity these people demonstrated,” said one Spokane voter who asked that his name not be used.
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